New York – I have fantasized about turning a part of the basement into a media room where I’d play “The Godfather,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Best Years of Our Lives” on continuous loop. But where to start? Chris Heinonen, the audio visual staff writer at The Wirecutter, The New York Times site for evaluating products, has tested all the options.
Could I realistically substitute a projector for a flat panel TV and be happy?
It depends on how you watch. If you don’t usually watch TV shows during the day and usually only put it on for movies or streaming, and can close the curtains and block the light, a projector can produce a much larger image for less money.
How do projectors compare in price?
An $800 projector can give you a 120-inch image, while a TV that’s 80 inches costs nearly $4,000. Projectors wash out badly with ambient light, unless you have a screen designed to prevent that, but they can cost more than a projector. Our recommended screen is about $190 for a 100 incher, last time I checked, so it’s still much cheaper. And you can get blackout curtains for around $50 or so a panel. (We have a guide to those as well.)
Some people don’t bother with a screen — they’ll just use their wall. The image isn’t as good, but some people would rather have a giant image for movies and be able to put the projector back in the closet when they don’t use it instead of having a huge TV taking up space.
I want to make clear that you can’t just put a projector where you had a TV and expect it to replace a TV in all situations. Any projector will usually fall short in terms of contrast ratio — the ratio of black to white — unless you’re spending at least $2,000. But, and this is key, you don’t see the benefits of that contrast ratio unless your room is completely dark with no ambient light. If there is any light in the room, it will wash out the black on a projector.
Which is why our favorite $2,000 projector is recommended for dedicated home-theater rooms. In a living room, you wouldn’t really see the benefits.
What do you recommend for a living room?
We really like the BenQ HT2050 projector that sells for around $740. It is really bright, runs quietly, and it is much more accurate for colors than many of its competitors. The more expensive models from BenQ offer slightly better image quality, but not enough to justify the price increase.
And if I do convert my basement to a theater?
The Sony VPL-HW45ES is our current home theater recommendation. For around $2,000, it has contrast ratios almost five times better than the BenQ because the blacks are much darker. It also has very accurate colors. As a result, the image just pops off the screen. It is also more adjustable so it’s easier to find the perfect position in any room.
How did you test these things?
The testing room is in my house. It was a bit of a requirement when we went home buying last year.
I have a completely light-sealed testing room, with a 92-inch screen. I didn’t make the room an all-black cave or anything. It’s a neutral gray like you’d find in a lot of modern homes. I installed a blackout roller shade in the window, put up trim pieces on the sides of it to cut off any extra light, and then covered the window on the door. I really need to replace it with a windowless one.
I do a lot of measurements on the projectors with devices that gauge their brightness, the accuracy of the colors, and even how well they play video games. And I watch lots of movies that I’m really familiar with to see how they perform, especially ones with dark shadows or high-contrast scenes like “Skyfall” and the final “Harry Potter” film.
Those are the hardest things to display well. I’ll also test in the same room with the lights on.
Did you get big comfy chairs, too?
I actually used to have home theater chairs that reclined, but I found them to be annoying in the end since it meant my wife and I were in separate chairs watching a movie. Now it’s just a sofa.
The New York Times